Review in Brief
Game: A cover-based third-person open-world shooter set in a technologically advanced Chicago.
Good: An interesting core mechanic; a surprisingly good morality system; some fun minigames.
Bad: Barely uses its core mechanic; generally generic and overly derivative; often tedious and irritating; a major missed opportunity; an unbelievable main character; mandatory multiplayer modes.
Verdict: The pre-release footage was legitimately awesome; the end-product, however, is incredibly disappointing.
Recommendation: Skip it.
“Three parts Grand Theft Auto, two parts Assassin’s Creed, one part inFamous. Pour over cliches, stir until generic, garnish with a gimmick. Serve chilled.”
If I could go back in time and tell myself that Watch Dogs was going to be 50% Grand Theft Auto, 35% Assassin’s Creed, and 15% inFamous, I probably would have gotten very excited for the game. A game that combined the best features of those solid franchises would have the potential to be something truly special, a transcendent and defining game for the eighth generation. Or, in other words, a game that bears at least some passing resemblance to the game we saw promoted for a couple years leading up to its release.
That description would have been an accurate summary of the structure of Watch Dogs. Unfortunately, that description doesn’t paint the whole picture. Yes, it combines elements of those three games, but it doesn’t necessarily combine the good elements. It combines the generic, the prototypical, the expected, the overdone elements. It copies the mechanics without copying the appeal that those mechanics originally had. And most importantly, it copies elements of those games without actually bringing much new to the table on its own.
Sure, there’s the hacking gimmick that formed the bulk of the promotion and marketing of the game. That gimmick strongly influences the game’s plot and motifs, but in terms of gameplay, it makes only a passing, gimmicky appearance. The vast majority of the game is directly ripped off from Grand Theft Auto, with third-person cover-based shooting, car chases, and the usual set of miscellaneous open-world tasks making up the bulk of gameplay. What elements weren’t in Grand Theft Auto can be relatively easily traced back to Assassin’s Creed, such as high points to reveal the map, free-running to catch enemies, and stealth missions to use distractions and hide from guards. A little bit of inFamous‘s vigilante-focus and morality system is thrown on top for good measure, leaving little room for the gimmick to really shine.
And that’s quite a shame, too. The gimmick at the core of Watch Dogs had the potential to carry the game without getting bogged down in another generic open-world third-person shooter. What’s more, even those elements that are pretty closely derived from other franchises aren’t implemented quite as well. It’s not as good a driver/shooter as Grand Theft Auto, it’s not as good a stealth game as Assassin’s Creed, and it’s not as good an open-world game as inFamous. And what’s even more disappointing is that it misses the appeal of those games as well; Grand Theft Auto was hilarious, Assassin’s Creed had a rich historical backdrop, inFamous had a compelling superpower-based layer of gameplay. Watch Dogs simply takes the generic, overdone portions of those games, leaves aside their actual appeal, and uses them to fill out the bulk of its content and gameplay, relegating its core gimmick to a gameplay afterthought and deus ex machina for the plot.
Watch Dogs is an open-world third-person shooter set in near-future Chicago. You take the role of Aiden Pierce, a hacker who can use his phone to interact with the web-enabled city of Chicago in a multitude of ways. A year ago, a group of people targeted Aiden and hurt his family as a result, and he is driven to find the people responsible to take them down. Along the way, he may also use his hacking ability for good to thwart crimes, bust up gangs, and take down rogue cops.
In terms of gameplay, Watch Dogs takes a pretty standard open-world shooter approach. You have all of Chicago to interact with, moving around by grabbing any car in the area. You have multiple classes of weapons to use in your fight, including pistols, assault rifles, sniper rifles, and grenade launchers. As you move around the world, icons mark optional missions, such as chances to stop crimes in progress or take down known criminals. The next plot mission is similarly always marked with an icon. A smartphone gives Aiden access to new abilities as he gains EXP points as well as a number of cars that can be summoned at the press of a button.
The gimmick of the game, Aiden’s hacking ability, allows him to do a number of things. Most prominently, Aiden can hack security camera to get different vantage points on an area and tag potential enemies. He can also hack phones to eavesdrop on conversations and predict future crimes, hack bank accounts to increase his own wealth, hack grenades or environmental explosives to set them off remotely, hack traffic lights to cause obstacles, and more.
When Watch Dogs was first unveiled in June 2012, it became one of the most hotly anticipated games of the eighth generation because it looked so unique. The hacking mechanic was both original and contemporarily relevant, and it had all the potential to bolster the game. That gimmick has its moments, and a couple other pieces of the game shine as well, but on the whole there’s surprisingly little to like about Watch Dogs.
Solid Core Gimmick
The key mechanic of Watch Dogs is Aiden’s ability to hack almost everything around him at any time. I have a lot of criticisms of the way this mechanic is implemented and used, but I’ll get to those later.
At its core, this mechanic is strong, and at times very well implemented. For example, in some missions, you are able to hack into security cameras to get a look at the area you’re attempting to penetrate. While you do so, you can set off explosives and other traps to take out some of the enemies before actually engaging them in head-to-head combat. In others, you can craft trap devices that can be used to lure and move enemies around to sneak by or kill them without engaging them head-to-head. When you’re in car chases, you can use the mechanic to change stop lights to trip up pursuers. When you’re running from the police, you can use devices like these to interfere with their scans and pursuits.
Where the core gimmick is used, it can actually be very engaging. Jumping around between cameras to set off traps to take out enemies in advance can be very fun, and the moments when the hacking mechanic can actually be used in the car chases can be entertaining as well. There are also a few puzzles revolving around the hacking mechanic that are decently well-implemented, such as a puzzle where you have to line up multiple pieces of a QR code by choosing and angling a camera in the correct way to see the entire code at once. That mechanic is also used to support some of the game’s stranger minigames (augmented reality games, within the context of Watch Dogs); many of those games are fun, so that’s a decent use of the mechanic as well.
The ultimate flaw with the core mechanic is that it honestly isn’t used nearly enough. You can play significant portions of the game without really using it, and more importantly, you can’t play the game relying on that core gimmick too heavily; far too often, you’re thrust back into the more typical Grand Theft Auto guns-and-cars gameplay. I’ll get to that later, though.
Well-Implemented Morality System
When I first saw that Watch Dogs had a morality system, I cringed a little bit. The morality system is one of the most annoyingly pervasive parts of modern gaming, and for every game that gets it right (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, there are several that get it wrong (inFamous). Given that Watch Dogs bears more similarity to the games that do it wrong than those that do it right, I didn’t have high hopes.
Ultimately, however, Watch Dogs actually does morality correctly. First, it eschews the stupidly trivial ways of adjusting one’s morality that we see in other games, like infamous. It’s no longer “save a baby from a burning building” vs. “throw a baby into a burning building.” The problem with moral choice systems in these games is that everything is a conscious, active choice: either you choose to be good or you choose to be evil. In the real world, however, it isn’t that simple: there are incentives to be good and incentives to be evil. Most games don’t build in those incentives, and as a result, the morality system is effectively, “Choose which way to play: Good or Evil.”
Instead, the moral “choices”, if you can even call them that, in Watch Dogs are more compelling. The “evil” decisions aren’t so much evil as they are the byproduct of recklessness. Sure, you can choose to be incredibly evil, but you’re more likely to develop an evil reputation by being reckless in your driving, endangering civilians, and damaging property. Those things, however, actually have an incentive to do them: they make the game easier. It’s a lot easier to complete missions that require you to race across the city in a minute if you don’t care how many pedestrians you mow down in the process. The incentive for being evil is that it makes the game easier. That’s a good, natural, nuanced incentive.
What about being good? As you perform moral or immoral actions, your reputation changes. As you get to be more recognized as a noble vigilante fighting for justice, the perception of you that people have changes. You hear comments about your noble actions. You become a hero to the people. That on its own is an incentive: sure, it’s harder to play as the true good guy, but it has a natural, built-in reward. The reward isn’t so strong that you feel pressured to run around completing all the “good” side missions to unlock the super good power like in inFamous, but it’s strong enough that you feel compelled to be good when possible.
This plays into the other major strength of the morality system in Watch Dogs: it isn’t all or nothing. This is an effect of the lack of a direct incentive to be good or evil and the naturalness of the actions that alter your moral standing. You feel like you can actually be a normal person in this world: sometimes you’re going to be very careful, but mistakes are going to happen. Sometimes you’re going to take out criminals in a way that lets them see trial, but there’s going to be that jerk you just want to pop in the head. All of that is okay. There’s not an absurd restriction that you must always be either good or evil lest you risk losing the rewards you seek.
Of course, the morality system isn’t flawless. There’s a surprising number of seemingly evil actions that could have (and, in my opinion, should have) altered your moral standing, like stealing cars and robbing bank accounts. It’s also natural to tilt good over the course of the game since many missions require you to complete actions that contribute to your good moral standing (although that’s not bad, and in fact, it justifies the notion that Aiden is an anti-hero rather than just a villain in protagonists’ clothing). However, it’s certainly better than most morality I see in games today.
Surprisingly Good Minigames
Let me caveat this first by saying that the minigames in Watch Dogs are completely out of place. They don’t fit with the game as a whole at all. If the game was better otherwise, the insane minigames would probably actually hurt the game a bit by reducing the seriousness and maturity of the game. But, since the game failed to be adequately good in the first place, the minigames are instead a brief breath of fresh air and break from the game’s otherwise pervasive monotony.
There are several minigames throughout Watch Dogs, framed as augmented reality experiences. As I’m writing this, six come to mind off the top of my head, although there were likely more. Some are minor overlays on the regular game world, like collecting coins digitally depicted as lying around the sidewalks or the sides of buildings. Others are more significant, including a pair of zombie-robot apocalypse minigames (one stealth, one car combat) and a spider tank minigame.
The minigames are actually the most fun I had while playing Watch Dogs, especially those last three. They’re all very well-developed, with their own in-built skill systems, experience systems, and upgradeable abilities, as well as plenty of levels to keep you entertained. In all honesty, most of the minigames could be sold as $5 downloadables on PlayStation Network; they’re good enough to stand on their own.
Of course, the minigames also beg a bunch of questions. Why is a man who is hell-bent on avenging the harm caused to his family wasting his time playing video games instead of moving on to the next task? If it’s out of character for Aiden to play these games, why give us, the player, the option of playing them at all? In these ways, the minigames could be seen as actually harming Watch Dogs as a whole by reducing the tension and introducing an unnecessary triviality to the game. However, since the game does such a poor job of creating a realistic cast and interesting story anyway, these problems don’t really emerge.
Watch Dogs commits a series of flaws, but what makes these flaws most prominent is the way they feedback on one another in addition to simply hurting the game on its own. The game doesn’t use its core gimmick enough, which in turns puts a stronger spotlight on the gimmicks of other games that it borrows. The clarity of the presence of those other gimmicks also helps allow a direct comparison, making it clear how generic the game is. Plus, the ease of those comparisons draws stronger attention to the things that Watch Dogs does badly because those features have direct analogues in other games and franchises. Overall, the game is not only flawed, but each flaw exacerbates the other flaws as well.
As I mentioned above, the core mechanic in Watch Dogs is actually very cool. The sequences that allow you to use the cameras to actually accomplish things and make progress as legitimately engaging, and most of my favorite moments playing the game originate from using these mechanics to their full potential. It really is fun to hack stop lights to cause accidents behind you, to lure enemies into explosive traps, or to distract enemies to let you sneak by unnoticed.
The problem isn’t with the gimmick itself; the problem is with how little the gimmick is actually used. This problem is two-fold. First, while the gimmick is cool when you use it, you can’t entirely rely on it. There are significant portions of the game where you have to take a traditional gun-heavy cover-based shooter approach. There are a couple little twists, like still being able to use things in the environment, but these are not fundamental to these sequences of the game. The gimmick is used to justify some of the weapons in the game, like lures and IEDs, but these are little more than re-skins of the same weapons used in a variety of other games, so they don’t really represent a strong usage of the core gimmick.
The second problem is borrowed from Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series. In Assassin’s Creed, missions are typically structured such that you can be stealthy and surreptitious, but doing so takes a lot of planning and effort. Why bother going to that trouble when your character is so powerful? Enemies rarely pose a real risk with that game’s counter-attack dependent battle system, so there’s little incentive to be secretive… except when the game directly requires it, which is more frustrating than engaging.
Watch Dogs has a similar issue. Combat isn’t nearly as easy as in Assassin’s Creed, but at the same time, stealth isn’t as easy either. To successfully take a stealth approach, you need to make several rounds around the building, tap the cameras multiple times, plan your path carefully, and check your own stock of items prior to proceeding… and even with all that preparation, there’s still a strong chance you’ll lose track of an enemy along the way and get picked off in the back, forcing you to start all over. If you run in guns blazing, sure, you’ll die the first two or three times, but you’ll die quickly and get pretty immediate feedback on what you did wrong, allowing you to retry relatively easily.
The effect is the same as in the Assassin’s Creed series: yes, there’s a cool stealth way of doing the missions that doesn’t rely on guns, using distracts and traps to take out or move past your enemies, but why would you take that approach when it typically takes much longer? There’s no reward for taking the slow and difficult approach, so why not take the fast and easy approach?
The combination of these two dynamics really paralyzes the game. There’s this cool gimmick, but you can’t beat the entire game relying just on that gimmick. There are areas where you can choose between the gimmick or a traditional approach, but the traditional approach is quicker and easier. As a result, the mechanic that is supposed to be the game’s entire selling point is relegated to a mere afterthought.
The lack of adequate usage of the game’s core mechanic leads to the second flaw…
Most of the gameplay of Watch Dogs is a straightforward generic cover-based third-person open-world shooter. With a few superficial changes, you might have trouble telling it apart from Grand Theft Auto. Guns and driving make up the vast majority of what you do in the game. Sometimes there are little puzzles or sequences that use the core mechanic, but the majority of the game is just a generic Grand Theft Auto rip-off.
This is a problem for a number of reasons. First of all, the cover-based third-person open-world shooter (let’s call it CBTPOWS) genre has been done to death over the past several years. What was once an amazing achievement in game development is now the foundation for many, many new games. To be a successful CBTPOWS, you need to have something extra on top of that foundation. In Assassin’s Creed, it’s the stealth gameplay, the rich historical background, and some interesting combat mechanics. In Batman: Arkham City, it’s a rhythmic and engaging combat system and several interesting, varied sidequests. In last generation’s inFamous games, it’s solid level and combat design. In Red Dead Redemption, it’s an interesting setting and an incredible story with perfect exposition. In Grand Theft Auto, it’s immensity, variety, and hilarity.
Watch Dogs tries to make its gimmick its “something extra on top”, but it doesn’t go far enough with that gimmick to really differentiate itself from the rest of the genre. That, ultimately, makes it come across as entirely generic. Take a look at some of what you do in Watch Dogs: drive through checkpoints quick enough. Escape from a car chase against the police. Escape from a car chase against criminals. Find a certain enemy. Kill everyone in an area. Steal something from an area undetected. Almost all of the missions ? main story and sidequest ? are direct analogues to some type of mission seen in several CBTPOWSs, or third-person open-world (TPOW) games in general, before.
Making this problem even worse, however, is the fact that not only is Watch Dogs a generic CBTPOWS, it’s not even a particularly well-implemented one. It has a couple twists on the genre, like using cameras to locate enemies, but the majority of its execution is subpar by the genre’s standards. Take the sidequests, for example: they appear seemingly randomly (occasionally justified by a plot mission), and are depicted almost explicitly as a list of accomplishments to check off a list. They aren’t contextualized, natural in-game tasks that emerge from the world, they’re a completionist’s to-do list. They’re repetitive, they’re generic, and the only reason to do them is to have done them.
Finally, the game is prototypically generic in two of the systems it uses as well. Money is exactly what you expect. You get money from robbing people, from finishing missions, or from playing games. You spend the money on guns, ammo, new cars, and new clothes. There’s nothing unique to the money system. You might ask: why does a money system need to be unique? It doesn’t necessarily have to be, but something in the game needs to be unique, and since nothing else is, it’s fair to point at the money system as another place where the genre’s generic conventions are implemented directly. And I don’t even want to talk about the experience/skill system. You gain experience points, level-up, and spend levels on skills. It’s the most generic system you can imagine.
The game doesn’t do everything badly. The actual cover-based shooting is pretty well-implemented. The game has one of the best systems I’ve seen for moving between cover (although it often falls into the same glitch of moving you into or out of cover against your wishes), and it does a good job of alerting you when the coast is clear so you can resume the pursuit of your objective freely. The information visualization for completing missions and sidequests is very well-designed, but it ultimately serves the game’s completionist appeal: it’s a checklist of things to accomplish, and you do them because they’re on your checklist. The only reason to do the tasks is to have done them, not because you feel particularly compelled to do so within the game world.
This criticism is very closely connected to the one above. Features don’t become generic overnight; ‘generic’ comes from a long series of games doing the same thing over and over, to the point where it becomes difficult to connect the feature to any one game. Many of Watch Dogs‘ mechanics are generic instantiations of CBTPOWS features, or more generally TPOW features. However, many of them are more directly derived from other, specific games and franchises. Grand Theft Auto largely created the CBTPOWS genre, and so the generic elements of Watch Dogs can be thought of as features derived from that series. In the title of this review, two other franchises are cited: Assassin’s Creed and inFamous.
Ubisoft developed both Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed, and the overlap shows. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some fundamental shared code between the two games, above the engine level but below the superficial level. It’s difficult to see many of Watch Dogs as entirely distinct from analogous features in Assassin’s Creed. For example, in Watch Dogs, one of your open-world pseudo-sidequests (although it may as well be mandatory with how much it aids the main quest) is to access certain towers. Accessing those towers allows you to see all the interesting points in the area, such as the locations of shops and side missions. While Aiden doesn’t take a leap of faith off these towers when he’s done accessing them, it’s tough to see these as anything but analogues to Assassin’s Creed‘s world structure.
Some of the interesting features of Watch Dogs are the abilities to distract and manipulate enemies. For example, when infiltrating an area, there might be a guard guarding a door. So, you can throw something behind him that causes him to look somewhere else, allowing you to slip by him. It’s an interesting feature and it definitely contributes to the positive usage of the game’s core mechanic, but it’s also effectively identical to similar features in Assassin’s Creed. Throwing change, throwing bodies, and other mechanics were used in that franchise to distract and move guards around, and the implementation in Watch Dogs is pretty directly similar.
Lots of other features are fairly strongly analogous to Assassin’s Creed. As Aiden is walking around, he can hack random passerbys and steal their money, just like Ezio can pickpocket the citizens of Venice. The design of the stealth sections themselves is highly reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed. Aiden has the ability to ‘free run’, and while it doesn’t mean climbing walls like Ezio or Altair do, it does provide a similarly open way of navigating the city. Many of the sidequests in Watch Dogs similarly are derived from these features of Assassin’s Creed, like foot races to collect coins. The hacking puzzles in Watch Dogs similarly could be seamlessly copied into different sections of Assassin’s Creed instead of the existing puzzles.
inFamous isn’t as strong an influence, but there are definitely moments that feel very similar to the game. The first is, of course, the morality system. I choose to suggest this is derived from inFamous because although many, many games have morality systems, the specific implementation in Watch Dogs is very similar to inFamous. There are actions that can be taken in the world that add to and subtract from Aiden’s reputation, and many of those (killing civilians, stopping criminals) directly match actions in inFamous. The plot dynamic of inFamous whereby the protagonist becomes a vigilante superhero is here as well. These are minor points that could be argued to have been borrowed from the genre as a whole instead of strictly from inFamous, but the specific flavor combined with the modern urban setting causes these to feel more directly copied. If you disagree, that’s fine — pretend I mentioned these under the section above.
Of course, none of this should suggest that Watch Dogs should have simply left these features out. They do contribute to the game and they do make it better. However, it’s tough to count these as ‘positive’ features when they’re so directly derived from other games that came before it. The derivative nature of the game doesn’t hurt the game, but it represents a missed opportunity for the game to be better by relying more on new features and mechanics than tried-and-true staples.
The above three sections cover different facets of the same general idea: Watch Dogs could have been a unique, interesting game, but instead, it is derivative, generic mediocrity. The best comparison I can think to draw is to L.A. Noire. Both Watch Dogs and L.A. Noire were developed by companies with a history of developing good TPOWs, and both tried to do something different with the genre. L.A. Noire, however, succeeded in doing something different; the problem is that “different” wasn’t “good”, and the game just wasn’t as fun as other TPOWs. That’s okay, though; it went all-in on its core mechanic, and as a result it was unique, even if it was less compelling than Grand Theft Auto and its ilk. Watch Dogs, on the other hand, wants to have its cake and eat it, too. It wants to lean on what has made the TPOW genre successful while also doing something very unique. When pressed, it chooses the tried-and-true over the new-and-interesting, and the result is a generic, uninspired amalgam of tried-and-true genre tropes with nothing unique or special about it.
Now, it’s easy to criticize without posing an alternative, so let me take a moment to suggest what I think Watch Dogs should have done differently. No guns. There, that was easy.
Guns are the weakness in Watch Dogs. First, guns are an alternative to playing the game the way it’s meant to be played. Why bother actually using the hacking mechanics when you can just rush in guns blazing? Second, guns distract from the real mechanics of the game. Instead of learning two dozen different guns and their respective strengths and weaknesses, why not encourage the player to instead learn even more interesting and creative ways to use the mechanics that the game actually sells itself on? The majority of the buttons and interface are sculpted around the traditional CBTPOWS gameplay. Third, removing guns would serve the level design as well. Guards can still have guns, but they become more like guards with guns in the Batman: Arkham series: they’re the really tough enemies that you must avoid.
What would be critical about this approach is that it would fix one of the biggest narrative weaknesses in the game as well. One of the problems with CBTPOWS is a question of realism: do we really believe that someone like Aiden, or the protagonists of Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed, can walk around with an arsenal on their back, kill literally hundreds of people, and still be unrecognized? Do we really believe a computer hacker like Aiden can take out two dozen military-trained security guards armed with assault rifles? Do we really believe that a company is going to have two dozen military-trained security guards armed with assault rifles just patrolling its facilities at all times? Of course not. None of that makes sense in the context of the game world, they’re all things we accept because they’re necessary for the gameplay in a CBTPOWS. Wouldn’t it be far more realistic for the security guards to be armed with tasers, batons, and maybe the occasional pistol instead of military-grade hardware? Wouldn’t it be far more realistic for a computer hacker to be able to use the compute systems of a building to take out two dozen security guards instead of doing it with an assault rifle, grenade launcher, and shotgun?
Watch Dogs shouldn’t have been a shooter. It would have been a significantly better game had Ubisoft moved all-in on the core mechanic, expanded it to fill the void left when guns are removed, and designed every mission around only the core gimmick instead of CBTPOWS elements. Even if they opted to keep guns, they could have borrowed a page from The Last of Us and used scarcity to make the shooter elements a last resort instead of the default play style. Instead, it’s generic, derivative, and decidedly average.
For me, however, the most depressing thing about the way Watch Dogs turned out is what a missed opportunity it was. Every year, there are games that look like big-sellers. Every year, some go on to become hits, and some flop. But most of these games earn their hype simply from their good gameplay or impressive graphics. Rarely is there a game whose hype is derived from what looks like a truly unique, contemporary central motivating idea. Assassin’s Creed was one such franchise. Uncharted was another. Portal, BioShock, and Super Smash Bros. were others.
Watch Dogs was one of those games. The idea of a game centering on a pervasive, automated surveillance state, starring hackers aligned with a secretive, decentralized group called DedSec, is perfectly aligned to present-day issues. As a society, we are only a few years away from realizing exactly the kind of technological civilization we see in Watch Dogs. The game had the opportunity to raise real, interesting questions about the implications of such a technology-dependent state, and explore them in an embedded, directed way that games can leverage better than books or movies. Instead, we got a generic third-person cover-based open-world shooter, garnished with an interesting, but ultimately underused, gimmick.
Tedious and Irritating
If Watch Dogs was merely a generic, derivative CBTPOWS, it might still warrant a 6 or 7. The genre is still fun enough that even it unremarkable games can be enjoyable if they execute the core mechanics well. The second problem with Watch Dogs, however, is that it doesn’t execute CBTPOWS mechanics particularly well.
First, there’s a problem with the level design. The levels, as advertised in the prerelease footage, are largely designed to be doable with strict stealth approaches. That’s good. The problem is that the game gives little to no indicator of what that stealth approach is. Finding the stealth approach is like finding a needle in a haystack; you essentially just have to luck into it. There are opportunities you have to manipulate the game world to preserve your stealth cover, but even then the options are too obscured to really plan an approach. When you fail as well, the game does not give a great indication of what you should have or could have done differently, so the learning isn’t iterative. Instead, in my experience, attempting to approach missions with a stealth focus was an exercise in aggravation until I finally decided to say “screw it” and run in with a grenade launcher blazing, which was effective a frustrating percentage of the time. It’s a shame because when you find the stealth approach, the game is fun and satisfying; it’s just so tedious and frustrating to find that approach that you rarely actually end up using it.
A common puzzle style the game uses is areas that are difficult to penetrate except through a series of obscure steps. First, use the cameras to find a switch. Then, unlock the door. Then, get to the door. The problem with these is similar to the above: actually doing the steps required can be fun, but figuring out those steps is typically just frustrating. You end up walking around the entire area multiple times looking for the right place to begin. Then, if you die halfway through, you’re placed back at the start, which oftentimes is quite far from where you actually need to go to start penetrating an area. I have particularly negative memories of one mission (a gang hideout mission, which requires you to sneak in and knock out two specific armed guards) that took several tries, but 50% of the time was spent simply running from the starting point around the building to where I needed to be every single time.
Similarly, the game does not handle waypoints very well. For example, there are several side missions that involve driving a stolen car to a certain location in under a certain speed. Typically, you need to have the game tell you how to get to that location. al or immoral actions, your reputation changes. As you get to be more recognized as a noble vigilante fighIf you fail the mission, you need to bring up the map, scroll over to the destination again, add the waypoint again, and close the map. The racing missions often involve a quick feedback cycle, so that becomes very frustrating after the 10th time you’re forced to do it.
These only scratch the surface of the ways that the game finds to irritate you. There’s the fact that it won’t let you request cars during missions (and the term ‘mission’ is very loose), forcing Aiden to become a carjacker several times throughout the game even while attempting to portray him as the protagonist. There’s the unintuitive weapon wheel, a single interface that attempts to handle crafting a half-dozen different items and switching between two dozen guns (honestly, the weapon wheel is a complete mess of mixed interaction styles and overwhelming information visualization). There’s the presence of so many guns with very few obvious differences, which ends up confusing the player more than providing flexibility.
But the worst part, by far, a criticism so significant I almost gave it its own section, is that the game can’t seem to avoid interrupting you at every possible occasion. The game has lots of sidequests, some online and some in the single-player game, although they blend. When a sidequest is “detected”, the game alerts you, giving you a one-button option to pursue the sidequest immediately. That part is fine, and is actually kind of cool. The problem is that the game throws these at you seemingly every single minute. You can’t play a minute of the game outside the mission without the game saying, “Hey, do this!” and “Hey, go do that!” This might sound trivial, but that should tell you how overdone it is: it’s so overdone that an otherwise trivial problem becomes a major annoyance because of how often the game does it.
Unbelievable Main Character
As I’ve described, the main influence and closest match to Watch Dogs is Grand Theft Auto. In Grand Theft Auto, the protagonists steal cars, rob civilians, kill pedestrians, and do various other criminal acts… because they’re violent, sociopathic criminals. That’s part of the game. It’s believable that they would do those things because they’re aggressive, violent, and remorseless. It makes sense in the context of the game.
Watch Dogs spends the majority of the game trying to convince us that Aiden is a victim of a hit ordered by some criminals. He’s the noble vigilante protagonist trying to avenge the harm caused to his family. His personality matches this; his demeanor is calm, cool, and collected. His top priority is his family. His main motivation is deserved revenge, not greed or aggression. He’s recognized as a vigilante hero by the people of Chicago, a noble force fighting against oppressive, corrupt officials and companies.
Then he walks down the street, hacking innocent pedestrians’ bank accounts to steal thousands of dollars, then yanks a woman out of her sports car and speeds away, running pursuing cops off the road causing them to crash into other innocent bystanders.
A foundational part of the gameplay of Watch Dogs is the ability to commit crimes: you steal cars, you rob stores, you hurt civilians. Sure, there are repercussions (sometimes), but all those activities are completely out of character for Aiden. He’s not portrayed as a car thief, a gun-toting murderer, or a burglar, and yet those are foundational parts of the gameplay. This isn’t just about freedom and allowing the player to play like they want like in inFamous either; the game forces you to break the law by not providing cars during missions. Moreover, it doesn’t even try to play the inFamous game of portraying Aiden as simultaneously good or bad flavored according to your decisions. Aiden is portrayed as good, but then is forced to be evil by the plot.
Yes, Aiden is a greedy hacker, but the majority of the crimes we see him commit, from car theft to assaulting police officers to murder, are completely out of character. It’s not believable that this computer hacker can storm into an enemy fortress with an assault rifle and grenade launcher and kill 20 people, yet oftentimes that’s exactly what he does. It would have served the game far more if it had relied on its core mechanic and let Aiden simply be a hacker, rather than requiring him to be a vigilante marksmen mastermind stunt driver as well.
This is less a criticism and more a pet peeve. I hate when games do this. Maybe you like it, but I hate it. I’ve heard others complain about this as well, so I feel justified in complaining about this.
In my opinion, a game’s single- and multiplayer modes should be separate. This is the paradigm used by the majority of video games: when you boot up the game, you choose whether you’re going to play single- or multiplayer. Assassin’s Creed works this way. The single- and multiplayer modes in Grand Theft Auto V are so separate that they get separate listings altogether on sites like GameFAQs. Some games, like Dark Souls, inject some online elements into the single-player game, but it doesn’t go so far as being true multiplayer.
Some games merge the two. Pokemon in recent years is an example, with multiplayer features taking up one of the screens or continually coming up in the regular course of the game. However, Watch Dogs is the worst offender in this category I’ve ever seen. First, initially, there’s a feature where other players can invade your game in some way ? honestly, I can’t describe it very well because I disabled it as soon as I could. It plays into the interruptions I mentioned earlier; when you’re playing the single-player game, you don’t want some random person online to be able to interrupt what you’re actively working toward or thinking about. The individual games aren’t bad, but the fact that someone online can interrupt you is not a good game feature.
But even when you disable it, it doesn’t go away. Those annoying mission interruptions I mentioned earlier are very often from online missions either. I never found a way to disable these altogether, which means that not only can other players interrupt your game (until you turn that feature off), but the game itself will interrupt you to remind you to play multiplayer missions as well. And this isn’t as simple as Pokemon inserting these suggestions into occasional conversations; these are big notifications that take up a side of the screen for several seconds. They’re incredibly annoying, especially when you always ignore them.
And even if it went away, there’s the fact that online features are also built directly into the game’s progress measurements. I mentioned earlier the game has a pretty cool information visualization showing your overall progress throughout the game’s sidequests; it lends itself to “checklist” gameplay, but at least it’s a nifty visualization. The online sidequests and missions, however, are built into this wheel as well. If you don’t want to play online, you can’t actually “complete” the game. Personally, I hate that. Single-player games should be played on their own, and multiplayer modes should stand on their own as well. They’re effectively entirely different types of games, with different incentives, different gameplay, and different goals. I’m not ready to say that it’s not possible to effectively mix single- and multiplayer, but I’ve not yet seen a game do it well, and Watch Dogs certainly doesn’t do it well.
I don’t count this as a major point against the game because, of all the things I’ve brought up thusfar, this is the most subjective. Watch Dogs deals with some very adult themes. Human trafficking and sex slavery play significant roles in the game’s plot. This begs the question: can video games, which at their heart are supposed to be fun, maturely deal with adult topics like sex trafficking?
I’m not prepared to answer that question in general yet. Film and literature deal with issues like this, and they do so from an artistic perspective that paints a picture of the topic rather than simply using it for contemporary appeal and perceived edginess. If video games are to make the transition to earnest, widespread consideration as an artistic medium, it is certainly fair to expect that video games ought to find a way to deal with these topics. However, more than any other artistic medium, video games are reliant on fun for their appeal. Games can be artistic, like BioShock and Shadow of the Colossus, but they must also be fun to play. Does that need to be fun to play clash with the ability of a game to maturely deal with adult themes?
In the case of Watch Dogs, that certainly seems to be the case. In the game, you walk around an auction area where naked girls are being forced to parade for horny bidding businessmen. Sex trafficking is not just referenced, it is explicitly shown: women being advertised to bidders, bidders having conversations about this one’s legs and that one’s hair and how fun it would be to “break one in”. You, as the main character, are tasked with tearing down this industry in Chicago as one of the side missions, but the reality is presented all the same. Then, you’re asked to sneak around this auctionhouse like a level of a video game. The fictional women paraded around to be sold into slavery are nothing but a new background for a video game level, like the cheering spectators from a Mortal Kombat game or the set pieces from an Uncharted game.
What is important to note here is that Watch Dogs does not simply reference the existence of human trafficking and use it to provide plot motive for missions or objectives. It would be possible to direct attention to the horrific reality of trafficking without explicitly showing it, and it could be done in a mature and delicate manner. Instead, however, Watch Dogs throws it on the screen, nothing held back, and then asks you to treat this area depicting one of the most grim realities of the human race as merely a level in a stealth video game. Then, afterward, stopping sex trafficking becomes a sidequest.
Some will say that the game’s acknowledgment of the industry is a grim, realistic picture of the dark side modern society, and as such should be praised as an artistic accomplishment. I disagree. The reverence and maturity with which Watch Dogs treats this issue is lacking. The auctionhouse where women are being sold into slavery is nothing but a level in a video game; that is not the level of maturity that this issue demands or deserves. Afterwards, the sidequest revolving around it is equally offensive. “Find patrons, find suitcases, unlock the final mission, and beat sex trafficking in Chicago forever!” Stopping sex trafficking is treated with the same reverence as delivering stolen cars and stopping petty thefts.
I’m not ready to say that video games cannot address mature topics like film and literature can. Watch Dogs, however, fails in its attempts, and instead comes across as an offensively light-hearted, irreverent portrayal of a grim, present reality.
Watch Dogs was not overhyped. ‘Overhyped’ implies that we, the audience, gave the game more hype than the early footage and promotional material deserved. That’s not what happened here. Based on the early footage, the descriptions of the game, and the gameplay trailers, the game legitimately did look incredible. It looked to be a transcendent new franchise, giving a relevant and insightful look at exactly the kind of world we as a society might be facing in the near future. On top of that, the gameplay looked fantastic, a set of new mechanics that change everything an open-world game can be.
Instead, what Watch Dogs delivers is another generic third-person open-world cover-based shooter. Very little of the gameplay is new. The vast majority of the game instantiates generic tropes from other games in the genre, most notably Grand Theft Auto. Then, it more directly borrows features from Assassin’s Creed and inFamous. The game is garnished with a couple new features in the hacking motif, but they’re not foundational to the structure or function of the game. For the vast majority of the game, Watch Dogs is indistinguishable from any other open-world shooter, and a subpar one at that.
Skip it. It has its moments, but not enough to justify playing it compared to the vast number of superior games out there.